Rules for Not Being a Jerk

Hello my name is JerkMost congregations have at least one jerk. You know who I mean—the one who takes up far more than one person’s share of time and energy and leaves the group feeling discouraged, disempowered, and exhausted. The jerk is the person who:

  • Walks into every meeting expecting the worst
  • Contradicts everyone
  • Knows best about everything from mission priorities to HVAC systems
  • Is suspicious of new thoughts
  • Enjoys confrontation and intimidation
  • Seems transparently judgmental
  • Makes others feel like idiots

I run into jerks all the time because I’m often hired by congregations that hope a new strategic plan or a governance structure will give them the tools and clarity of purpose to deal with their particular jerk.

If you have a jerk, I suggest books like The No Asshole Rule by Robert Sutton and its soon-to-be released companion volume, The Asshole Survival Guide. (My favorite advice: Learn “when and how to simply not give a damn.” Or as Sutton quotes Walt Whitman, “Dismiss whatever insults your soul.”)

I am not writing today about how to deal with the jerk across the table from you. Instead I want to talk to those of you who are jerks, because my not-so-secret secret is that I’m one of you.

Yes, I can be a jerk. I sometimes come to the meeting already angry. I expect incompetence, though nothing upsets me more. I am not especially suspicious of new thoughts—but I am often suspicious of your thoughts. The older I get, the more likely I am to leap to judgment and reveal it in my facial expressions. (Tip: If I roll my eyes, I think you’re an idiot.)

Rules for Jerks

I could try to justify myself by saying the fault is in my genes, or the increasingly demented and high-stress society we live in, or the lack of ocean access here in central Iowa. But I’m not going to try. The bottom line is that I can be a jerk. However, I don’t want to be one anymore, and I’m guessing you don’t, either. So I propose we write some new rules:

  1. Assume everyone has good intentions. A few people may do silly things just to annoy you, but most aren’t paying you that much attention—they’re just trying to get along and do their best. Their best will probably be better if the people they encounter are supportive rather than angry.
  2. Smile and nod. Don’t just sit there with your arms crossed and your mind closed. If you need to challenge an idea or correct something someone has just said, others will hear better if you listen to them first and carefully consider what they’ve said. The way to show you’ve done this is through basic body movements like smiling and nodding.
  3. Count to ten before you crush someone. We jerks tend to be quick with a stinging retort, even when we don’t mean to be—and we may regret it later. Satisfying as a “zinger” may be in the moment, it leaves the other person feeling—as Sutton puts it—“oppressed, humiliated, de-energized, and belittled.” Is that really how you want to make them feel? If not, breathe deeply and think of something else to say.
  4. Believe God is at work in the thoughts and conclusions of others. The theology behind most of our denominational governance structures is that the church works best when a group of people try to discern God’s will together, rather than just one of us operating alone. If we truly believe this, then we’ll listen for God in the words of others, even when we worry that they don’t quite get the full complexity of the issues we are struggling with.
  5. Let go of some of your desired outcomes. No matter how long you or I have thought about an issue or how deeply we believe we understand it, we can still be wrong. Maybe not wrong in our analysis of data, but wrong about the needs of other people or the nature of this moment. We must be willing to let go of our beautiful conclusions—at least long enough to listen to our colleagues about what they hope to achieve.
  6. Start now. The best time to give up being right or suspicious or judgmental is right now. These behaviors may be comfortable and familiar. In some ways, they may have served us well. But our fellow congregation members don’t benefit from our being jerks, and they’re ready now for us to stop.

The world is in turmoil, and I have concluded that my being a jerk does not improve it. It is time for all of us to embrace a more gracious nature.

Sarai Rice consults with congregations on a variety of issues including planning, program development, and governance, and offers coaching for clergy and lay leaders. She has a passion for work across the lines of faith traditions, especially in areas involving community ministry and social justice, as well as a deep commitment to the notion that human institutions should work well for the people they serve.

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